What do journalists need to do in order to incorporate climate change into reporting the weather?
By Eithne Dodd
This summer (In the Northern Hemisphere) there has been a surge in extreme weather events.
Less documented disasters include villages in Uganda overrun by overflowing rivers. In Mumbai, India at least 25 people died after heavy rain caused a mudslide. While temperatures in South Africa plummeted, Finland experienced it’s longest ever heatwave.
Here in Ireland, the heatwave, which hit over 30C, saw Met Eireann issue its first ever orange alert for high temperatures. The media has struggled with reporting these weather events while giving due weight to climate change.
In the Irish media, national broadcaster RTE has come under public scrutiny for its failure to mention climate change when reporting on extreme weather events. Prominent Irish climate scientists and activists made their dissatisfaction known.
The charity, Irish Doctors for the Environment, wrote an open letter to RTEexpressing the organisation’s “deep disappointment” with the broadcaster’s coverage of extreme weather events.
“To report on these record-breaking weather events without mentioning climate change is as egregious as reporting on the unprecedented spike in ICU admissions last April without mentioning a global pandemic,” the letter said.
Director of the DCU Centre for Climate and Society David Robbins wrote in The Irish Times: “Climate will become the taken-for-granted context of all news reporting, the ways jobs and the economy are now.”
Following the backlash to RTE’s coverage of extreme weather events, managing director Jon Williams promised to “double down on our coverage of climate issues.”
There are several ways that journalists can report weather events in the context of climate change.
Climatologist Michael Mann said that he believes part of the problem is that there are too few environmental and science journalists on staff. “This often forces other reporters to cover climate-related topics and they’re less well equipped to sort out legitimate science from agenda driven anti-science. But even the best-trained journalists can fall victim to this framing, owing to the fractious and confusing nature of the public discourse on climate change.
“Often the issues are more on the editorial side than the journalistic side. One solution is to schedule regular roundtable discussions where leading scientists and science communicators conduct background discussions with editorial boards, complementing the one-on-ones between scientists and journalists.”
Carlos Rocha, associate professor of environmental change at Trinity explained that when reporting on weather, if you want to educate people about climate, the best thing to do is to demonstrate how the weather has changed over time.
Making the contrast between then and now, Rocha believes, is the best way to highlight how climate change is influencing these extreme weather events.
“Putting weather into a historical context is educating about climate change,” Rocha said. “Climate is manifested in the underlying trend of damages…
“Have [reporters] compared the current situation with historical data? So, for example, when you say it’s very hot, what does that mean? Can we say, how hot has it been in the past and where the current temperature is situated? Can we look at the graphs, seeing the highest temperatures in Dublin over the past 20 years, and where ours is at the moment?”
For John Gibbons, Public Relations Officer at An Taisce, the most important thing journalists should know is that the climate has already shifted.
“We’re now at 1.2C above pre-industrial levels. That’s the biggest change in 10,000 years,” Gibbons said.
“So, when you’re doing a weather story, you’re doing it in the context of a climate that has already changed. I think a lot of reporters forget this, then you get these questions like, ‘Is it climate change?’ every weather event is influenced by the background climatic conditions.”
When looking at weather events, Gibbons argues, “we need to understand that what we’re seeing is a rapidly changing weather system.”
Another thing journalists can do when reporting weather stories is to explain why an extreme weather event happens.
“A warmer atmosphere holds a lot more water,” Rocha explained. “It’s just physics. That water will come down and there’s lots more of it. As soon as conditions are right, the whole thing will just come down.
“This is why we have extreme rain events and we have really large flooding events because drainage systems can’t cope with the amount of water features in such a short time.”
Another consideration when seeking to give a climate change context to a story is to remember that people have been observing these changes in their lives. From farmers noticing the signs of spring earlier, to people saying ‘it’s warm for winter’, to more jellyfish in Irish waters – the signs of a warming world are already here.
“Every reporter and it doesn’t matter what your beat is, will have to get up to speed with climate change. I think it’s important to have that because climate is spilling over into every other area. We need that climate literacy in news rooms so that they’re asking the right question,” Gibbons said.
Gibbons compares climate coverage to GAA coverage. It isn’t good enough to report every match, or every weather event, you have to cover the whole season. In other words, more context is required.
I asked Mann what a media organisation with good climate change coverage looks like. Mann replied: “For climate change to no longer be treated as a niche issue but incorporated into coverage about extreme weather disasters, sociopolitics, the economy, conflict, national security, food, agriculture, and everything else. The climate crisis now pervades all sectors of our civilization and should be covered that way.”
“I’ve often seen this on television where broadcasters say, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime event.’ That might be so but can we compare?” Rocha said, again emphasising that it is important to give historical context to weather stories.
More flooding, more heatwaves, more forest fires are all being predicted by climate scientists as the planet heats up. “This is simple physics at a planetary level,” Rocha said.
“Unfortunately it’s happening and it’s happening sooner than we had expected at this level, which means that we don’t fully understand the system, but it’s running away from us.”